Gambling with Integrity

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When Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation's former chairman Ralph Fiske's wrongful dismissal suit went to trial last May, one canny Halifax lawyer voiced surprise that Fiske planned to call only two witnesses: himself and former finance minister Bill Gillis.

"Two witnesses to prove wrongful dismissal?" said the lawyer. "Sounds like a pretty weak case."

It only sounded weak if you didn't know Ralph Fiske.

Arrayed against him were seventeen members of Nova Scotia's political, bureaucratic, and legal establishment: former premiers, cabinet ministers, and deputy ministers from the premier's office; officials of the gaming corporation; and a clutch of Liberal lawyers from the province's best-connected law firms.

If you count Gillis, whose peevish demeanour and all-but-total lack of recall led Mr. Justice David Gruchy to declare him a hostile witness, it was eighteen-to-one against Fiske. One David against two baseball teams of Goliaths.

Yesterday, Fiske touched home plate in near total victory.

Gruchy found that political interference in the gaming corporation's administration of the Sheraton Casino project rendered Fiske's position untenable and forced him to resign. He ordered the province to pay the balance of Fiske's employment contract, more than $300,000 plus interest.

His judgment rests on an accumulation of findings that Fiske told the truth about events leading to his resignation, while others dissembled.

The verdict is a triumph for Fiske, and for lawyer Bruce MacIntosh, a former barristers-society president who risked financial ruin to single-handedly pursue a case that could have kept a dozen lawyers busy.

Loyalty runs deep with these two. Fiske, a lifelong Liberal, hired MacIntosh out of law school in 1972 to serve as his executive assistant during a brief stint as then-premier Gerald Regan's industry minister. Both jobs came to an end when Fiske couldn't stomach Regan's decision to pour more money into the Sydney Steel Plant, and resigned in quiet protest.

Last year's forty-six-day trial featured 500 documentary exhibits and more than 2,000 pages of submissions by lawyers. Day after day, Fiske sat in the courtroom visitor's gallery, flanked by wife Claire and law student Sarah MacIntosh, who, in a quirk of historical synchronicity, served as unofficial clerk to her lawyer-father during the proceedings.

The trial served as a replay of the 1998 public accounts committee hearings, where a dozen prominent Liberal witnesses ridiculed Fiske's concerns, mocked his suggestion of political interference and portrayed him as an obdurate man of frail nerves.

In a courtroom, unlike a legislative chamber, witnesses couldn't escape cross-examination by MacIntosh, or cross-referencing with the mountain of documents he had pried loose from recalcitrant government offices. Under MacIntosh's questioning, vague, non-specific denials of political interference withered in the face of documentary evidence and highly specific testimony from Fiske.

Again and again, Gruchy's decision finds Fiske's account of events more believable than that of the eighteen establishment figures aligned against him.

He finds it "disturbing" that then-premier John Savage voiced no concern with Fiske's handling of the casino dispute until an annual meeting of the Liberal Party attended by Bernie Boudreau and Larry Hayes, a lawyer for Sheraton who had recently signed on as official agent for Boudreau's leadership campaign.

The following day, Bob MacKay, deputy minister of the premier's office, summoned Fiske to a meeting at the premier's office, where Savage encouraged him to avoid arbitration and settle the dispute.

The sudden about-face, the short notice, and the fact MacKay retained separate counsel for the premier all troubled the trial judge.

Despite MacKay's denials, Gruchy accepts Fiske's evidence that MacKay insisted on delaying the arbitration at least until the Liberal leadership convention. He finds Fiske's much-ridiculed assertion that an "honourable gentleman" had assured Sheraton officials of the province's acquiescence credible. Despite denials, he accepts that Hayes and a lawyer for the premier even discussed firing Fiske to smooth the way for Sheraton.

Gruchy accepts that comments by MacKay in the presence of Sheraton lawyers undermined the gaming corporation's bargaining position. He criticizes Gillis's "lack of candour (or hypocrisy)" in dealings with Fiske.

Despite denials by Gillis, MacKay, and Savage, Gruchy concludes that a subsequent heated meeting in the premier's office included comments by Savage that the casino dispute had to be settled lest it damage Boudreau's leadership campaign.

Nova Scotians should celebrate this moment, rare in our recent history, when a lone civil servant proved that courage and integrity can overcome the mediocrity that corrupts governance in this province.

When future civil servants are forced to choose between doing the right thing and the politically easy thing, Fiske's example will beckon them toward duty.

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